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The Empress of Mars Review

Posted by SonicR on July 4, 2017 at 7:40 AM

Despite the Ice Warriors being Doctor Who’s version of the ‘little green men from Mars’, the fact that they come from our planetary neighbour has never been anything of importance – an interesting titbit of information at most, and hardly relevant to the plot. As such, it’s tremendously satisfying to see them in action on their home planet, in an episode that twists the usual Doctor Who dichotomy of good humans defending Earth against the bad aliens. This inversion of the usual good vs bad formula also plays quite well into the traditional depiction of the Ice Warriors - despite being the classic Doctor Who villain (big and lumbering), in most of their apperances they've always been shown to be, at the very least, not wholeheartedly bad; even sympathetic, as was the case in their last appearance: 2013's Cold War, which was also written by the author of this story, Mark Gatiss.

Two of Gatiss' scripts for Doctor Who have also taken place in Victorian London, and from both of those it's evident that he's quite a big fan of the time period. So for what may possibly be his final Doctor Who script, it's no real surprise that he's combined two of his favourite aspects of Doctor Who into the one story that, against all the odds, actually works really well. Victorian soldiers on Mars fighting the Ice Warriors is something that sounds completely ridiculous, but the reason I think it works is because it takes full advantage of the colonial beliefs and behaviours of the British Empire at the time. Mars in this case is pretty much analagous to Africa, with the British troops coming in to claim the land for the Queen, and fighting off the natives in the process. Only this time, the natives have the superior technology to the invaders.

Fortunately, that's all in the subtext, and audience isn't barraged with a big speech about the wrongs of that historical attitude. This allows the episode to get on with the central conflict of the episode - humans vs Ice Warriors, with the Doctor trying to intervene and stop the conflict altogether. And yes, it plays out exactly as you expect, but it's done so well, with clear narrative reasons justifying the conclusion, and the fleshing out of the characters to make their motivations understandable, that Empress of Mars becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Speaking of the inidvidual parts, I really enjoyed the first appearance of a female Ice Warrior. Only ever alluded to previously, it adds a new dynamic to the species – even if, combined with the ‘ice tombs’, the Ice Warriors appear to be the Martian version of the Cybermen, with the Empress as the equivalent of a Cyberleader. But one thing that Empress of Mars did so well is that it showed that, unliked the Cybermen, there was disunity among the ranks of the Ice Warrors in the form of the previously captured one, Friday; this lack of uniformity is also shown on the human side through the commanding officer. Doctor Who has never really done shades of gray well (it’s one of my issues with the Zygon two-parter from Series 9; no ‘good’ zygons are shown doing anything of merit), so it’s nice that the fact that there can be diversity within a faction can be shown in an effective way.

The episode isn’t perfect: for one, I wish that Adele Lynch, who played the Empress, had reigned in her performance; it was a bit too hammy for my taste, and did detract slightly from what was otherwise quite a compelling role. It’s also quite obvious that the script for Empress of Mars was written before Nardole was confirmed as a full time companion, with him disappearing out of the episode after only a few minutes, only to return towards the end. Nardole has been a very endearing presence this series, so his absence is noticeable, but the story works very well without him, and his return to Earth and recruitment of Missy to get the TARDIS back to Mars continues to set up what appears to loosely be the series arc; that of the Master’s redemption. I’m still not quite convinced that the Doctor attempting to turn the Master good is an idea worth pursuing, but the question of whether or not he’ll succeed is an intriguing one, and it will be interesting to see how it comes to a head, presumably in the finale.

Empress of Mars offered a great premise, compelling characters and sensible solution to the episode’s conflict, and it all made for an excellent episode. But the icing on the cake was the realisation that it essentially serves as a prequel to the Third Doctor story The Curse of Peladon, where the Ice Warriors are shown to be members of the Galactic Federation. The added bonus of a cameo from Alpha Centauri, an alien who also appeared in the Peladon story, was icing on the icing on the cake! The fact that Alpha Centauri was voiced by its original voice actor, 91 year old Ysanne Churchman, made the moment even more special, and easily cemented Empress of Mars’ status as the best episode of the series thus far.


Categories: Doctor Who Reviews

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Reply Patch
8:11 PM on July 9, 2017 
This was my pick for best episode too. I loved the old school feel of it, and it had me totally absorbed.
Reply sm
5:46 PM on July 20, 2017 
Didn't like this episode much at all, sorry. ☹